In addressing second language issues in student writing, most often considered are concerns such as run-on sentences and fragments.
These are indeed problems—actually for both the native speaker and second language learner—at the sentence/grammatical level that can result in reader confusion.
Fragments and run-on sentences are also relatively easy to address, involving direction instruction in what a “correct” sentence is in English, what fragments and run-ons are, and how to correct them, usually by changing, adding, or taking out punctuation marks, and then allowing students to practice making corrections in these sentence boundaries concerns.
What doesn’t get addressed at the sentence level, and is much more likely to cause confusion in readers, are concerns with word choice and form: using the wrong word or the wrong form or part of speech of that word. As an example of a problem with word form, many students confuse the verb “to succeed” with its noun form “success,” resulting in sentences such as “We successed at the fundraiser.” In the matter of word choose, many Latin-based English words used especially in academic writing have different connotations or completely different meanings than used in Latin-based languages: e.g., a well-known confusion is “embarazada,” sounding like “embarrassed” in English, means “pregnant” in Spanish. This is called a “false cognate,” when the words appear to have a common origin and meaning but do not.
Sentence boundary issues are also more easily addressed than word choice/form errors, often a matter of teaching standard punctuation rules. Alas, there are few “rules” regarding word choice/form, and such rules or principles that do exist are complex and multi-faceted.
However, this concern with word choice and form can be addressed with careful and patient instruction.
3 Reasons for Problems with Word Form and Choice
There is no reason, really, that in English “manifestation” is used to mean an appearance and not a public and formal protest, as in some languages, the way “demonstration” is used in English. It’s “just the way we say it” and idiomatic.
The Few Set Rules are Complex to Learn
Where is the past participle versus the present participle used: e.g., When is “borrowed” and when is “lent” used? There is a rule regarding direct and indirect objects that makes “I lent him my book” and “I borrowed a book from him” correct and why “I borrowed him my book” is incorrect, but the rules, involving both semantics and syntax, are convoluted and difficult to learn and remember.
Teachers Sometimes Avoid or Don’t Know How to Teach.
The native speaker of English certainly knows “I borrowed him my book” is incorrect sentence structure and that “I attended the manifestation for my labor union” is not correct word choice. But the teacher may have trouble articulating or even knowing why these forms are incorrect—they just “sound” wrong. Therefore the teacher may advise the student just to read a lot to pick up the fine differences in meaning—which is certainly one effective if not efficient method but doesn’t help with an immediate concern.
5 Hints to Teach Correct Word Form and Word Choice
Call Attention to Errors
The first step in error correction is simply to bring them to the level of consciousness, to point them out in some manner, such as through editing marks on a paper, as is most typical and efficient but perhaps less effective. It’s been shown students often look at the grade only, ignoring comments from the instructor, and throw away the paper once they know the grade is posted.
Teach Such Rules That Do Exist
Nouns in academic English often end in “—tion” and “—sion.” These endings almost certainly signal a noun form and therefore should not be used on a word in the verb position of sentence but quite possibly on the subject or object; an “—ing” ending indicates the present participle of a verb and may be used on a word in the verb position of a sentence but also in the subject or object at times as it can be used as a gerund, which functions as a noun: “Succeeding always came easily for her.”
Teach Use of the Dictionary and Thesaurus—Both Online and Paper
Dictionaries and thesauruses can probably be exploited a great deal more than they are. From both dictionaries and thesauruses students can learn a bank of synonyms for words and begin to distinguish between finer connotations of meaning. Paper dictionaries often show words contextualized in example sentences. The thesaurus in most word processing programs is also invaluable, offering alternate words to a selected word. These resources will not only expand students’ vocabulary but also provide example uses so that students can learn the immediate sentence-level context the word is used in so that mistakes in word form will less likely occur.
Read as Much as Possible
As noted, reading for fluency has limitations as it takes a lot of time and doesn’t address students’ immediate problems with writing. However, research has shown consistently that the most effective way to expand one’s written vocabulary is through reading, so assigning academic reading practice every class session is one method that can’t be ignored, and students should be encouraged to read as much as possible, especially in their field of study, so that they will be learning the vocabulary of that profession and its use.
Write as Much as Possible
Consistent practice, every day, is the key to fluency and understanding of word choice. Have students read on a topic and then write in response to that topic, with a requirement that five words from the reading, for example, should be used in the response. This assignment will provide a model of writing and get students to analyze vocabulary and its use while they are choosing their words for their writing.
Word form and word choice errors are among the most ignored of language errors—teachers avoid teaching them or marking them because they are difficult to teach due their complexity and idiomatic “ruleless” nature. However, through careful marking and instruction, students can begin to self-correct their problems in word choice and form.